STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some other news - Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate toxic air pollution more than 20 years ago. The EPA did that for most industries, but not the biggest polluters - power plants that burn coal and oil. The EPA plans to change that later this week. It is setting new rules to limit mercury and other harmful pollution. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: When Congress first told the EPA to put the brakes on toxic air pollution in 1990, pediatrician Lynn Goldman was in California. She was investigating the impact of mercury from mining operations on Native Americans families living near a contaminated lake.
DR. LYNN GOLDMAN: We had children that had levels that were many times higher than levels that are considered to be safe.
SHOGREN: Their families caught and ate a lot of local fish.
GOLDMAN: Unfortunately, we had to advise them to stop.
SHOGREN: The fish had too much mercury. Goldman is now dean of George Washington University's school of public health. She says mercury damages children's developing brains, including their verbal abilities.
Mercury from mine tailings, medical waste, and especially air pollution adds up. It accumulates in the food chain, mostly in fish. Pregnant mothers pass it to their children. Studies suggest hundreds of thousands of babies each year are born with high mercury levels.
GOLDMAN: Because particularly the children who live close to these plants are the most affected by them.
SHOGREN: Goldman headed EPA's toxics office during the Clinton administration and worked on limiting mercury. It wasn't easy. She says the power industry and its supporters resisted.
GOLDMAN: I think from day one everybody knew that regulating mercury from - especially power plants - wasn't going to be easy. I don't think anybody thought that today, 21 years later, we would still be in a position where this had not been controlled.
SHOGREN: When President Bush took office, the power industry persuaded his EPA to adopt soft limits on mercury. But federal courts said that regulation was too weak so it never went into effect. Now, the court has set a deadline of Friday for the EPA to issue a new rule.
The language the EPA wants would require quick action. Within three years, power plants that burn coal would have to cut more than 90 percent of the mercury from their exhaust. They'd also have to slash arsenic, acid gases, and other pollutants that cause premature deaths, asthma attacks and cancer. But even now, some power companies have been furiously fighting EPA's rule - especially its deadlines.
ANTHONY TOPAZI: It's physically impossible to build the controls, the generation, the transmission, and the pipelines needed in three years.
SHOGREN: Anthony Topazi is chief operating officer for Southern Company. Southern provides electricity to nearly four million homes and hundreds of thousands of businesses in the southeast. Topazi says electricity rates will go up, putting marginal companies out of business. And, he says, unless his company gets six years, it will not be able to keep the lights on.
TOPAZI: We will experience rolling blackouts or rationing of power if we don't have, simply, the time to comply.
PAUL ALLEN: It doesn't square exactly with our experience.
SHOGREN: Paul Allen is a senior vice president of another power company, Constellation Energy. His company installed controls for mercury and other pollutants on its big power plant outside Baltimore. He says it took a little more than two years, and at the peak of construction, put 1300 people to work.
ALLEN: We don't believe that jobs will be destroyed. And we do think that it's time to get on with this work.
SHOGREN: Allen says the power industry had plenty of heads up this was coming. About a dozen states have already required power plants to clean up mercury. Massachusetts, for example.
Ken Kimmell is the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. He says even though power plants in his state have slashed mercury pollution his department still has to advise people not to eat fish caught in streams and lakes.
KEN KIMMELL: The mercury levels in the fish are still too high for it to be safe to eat and that's because we're still receiving an awful lot of mercury from upwind power plants.
SHOGREN: Upwind power plants in other states. He says that's why it's so important for the EPA this time to adopt strong nationwide rules with tough deadlines, despite all the political pressure it's under not to do so.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.